UNCASVILLE, Conn. — Minnesota Lynx guard Kayla McBride settled into a folding chair after scoring 19 points in her team’s win over the Connecticut Sun on Sunday. It would have been the perfect time for McBride to sit in front of reporters and TV cameras and get her flowers.
But instead, McBride delivered a message: There would be no basketball questions answered. She would discuss player safety, mental health and chartered flights.
“Sorry,” McBride said on the way out. “We will be back to normal interviews on Tuesday, but this was important.”
McBride wasn’t the only player who chose to highlight issues plaguing the WNBA over the weekend. Elizabeth Williams of the Chicago Sky did the same in the lead-up to her team’s clash with the Phoenix Mercury.
Absent from that contest was Brittney Griner, who will miss an unspecified amount of time to focus on her mental health.
The decision once again brought travel issues in the WNBA to the forefront of conversation. Griner’s safety when traveling has been a concern since she returned to the United States in December after being wrongfully detained in a Russian prison for 10 months. The Mercury star has already endured one incident at an airport this season, increasing players’ calls for chartered flights. Under the current CBA, teams are obligated to fly commercial for competitive advantage reasons, with the exception of the playoffs, back-to-back games and the Commissioner’s Cup championship.
The WNBA is in a period of growth, with this season breaking viewership and attendance records throughout the league. Coinciding with that growth are conversations about expansion, as the league hopes to add multiple teams in the next few years.
WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert says the league has done data analysis on “over 100 cities,” taking into account demographics, potential corporate partners and whether or not there is already an established women’s basketball fanbase. Places with strong markets for women’s NCAA programs are of particular interest, she says.
“It’s kind of a multi-dimensional look,” Engelbert said. “I’d say a lot of different things, but fandom and corporate partners and people need to show up and get in seats. We need to find those markets.”
Players don’t necessarily want expansion, at least not until other issues are solved. And the top concern for players right now is the ability to fly charter.
“I believe that until we have all of our priorities in check as a league, as the 12 teams that we have now, it’s hard to expand and to give resources somewhere else,” McBride said. “I think charters is number one.”
Engelbert believes the league can improve in multiple ways simultaneously.
“I think we can balance all of it,” she said on Sunday at Mohegan Sun Arena.”I think we have been chipping away at some things that I know are important to the players. But we’re still going to be fiscally responsible as well and make sure that we feel confident that the growth of the league will match the benefits we can get.”
Part of the reason Engelbert is so adamant about expansion is because she believes it could increase media rights deals for the league. Bigger deals mean more money to use on player benefits like chartered flights.
“If you bring in more expansion teams, your media rights will be more valuable because now you’re bringing in more cities to draw that fandom in,” she said. “That’s what media companies are looking for is broad reach.”
Engelbert cited the NBA as an example. When the league was in its 27th year (where the WNBA is now), players flew commercial, but that changed as the league signed more lucrative media rights deals.
“The only reason the men have (chartered flights) is because of media rights deals,” Engelbert said. “That is it.”
Engelbert added that she wants to get chartered flights for the players, but she wants them in perpetuity. And the league, she says, is getting to a place financially where that will be feasible.
“When I came into the league, I would have done it,” she said. “But I would have bankrupted the league in a year or two.
“It will cost $25-to-30 million for a full 40-game season for 12 teams, and more if we add teams. So you chip away at it until you can afford it, and how do you afford it? Media rights.”
The WNBA currently has deals with ION and ESPN running through 2025. They’ve also partnered with CBS/Paramount+, CBS Sports Network, Amazon Prime, NBA TV and Twitter to broadcast games.
In addition to travel, Engelbert addressed a couple of other issues facing the league on Sunday.
Each team in the WNBA technically has 12 roster spots, making room for 144 total players. In order to get more players in the league, roster expansion — rather than team expansion — is one possibility. But it’s not one that Engelbert agrees with.
While it seems like an easy solution, the commissioner says the situation would be more complex than it appears. She worries about playing time and player development.
“It doesn’t drive anything for the league,” she said of roster expansion. “So I’d rather do a development plan for players, rather than just adding them to a roster and not getting much playing time or experience.”
Former UConn stars Breanna Stewart and Napheesa Collier recently announced the creation of Unrivaled, a 3×3 league that will take place during the WNBA’s offseason. It joins Athletes Unlimited as alternative options for players who have routinely gone overseas in the offseason to play and earn more money.
It also gives players an option that doesn’t interfere with the league’s prioritization rule, which penalizes players for missing the start of the WNBA season and makes offseason commitments difficult to navigate.
Engelbert says the WNBA supports both Unrivaled and AU.
“I think it’s a great idea. Anything that promotes the game of women’s basketball,” she said. “I would like us to become the center for all women’s basketball, whether it’s in our season or outside of our season.”
Eden Laase is a Staff Writer at Just Women’s Sports. Follow her on Twitter @eden_laase.